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Building a better family business

Business consultant and Iowa farmer shares humorous experiences, sage advice, and hard truths at 2017 Pick Tennessee Conference
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 3/23/2017


The 2017 Pick Tennessee Conference, held Feb. 16-18 in Franklin, featured Jolene Brown, family business consultant and Iowa farmer. More than 300 specialty farmers and agriculture industry representatives were on hand for Brown’s keynote address sponsored by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative and Farm Credit Mid-America.
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As featured speaker at this year’s Pick Tennessee Conference, Jolene Brown, a family business consultant, may have been preaching to the choir, considering that a whopping 98 percent of the state’s

farms are family-owned and -operated.

But, from the looks of the choir — a sea of captivated audience members packed into overflow seating — it’s obvious that her sermon hit home.

“Let’s be honest,” Brown, who farms with her husband in Iowa, told attendees during the conference held Feb. 16-18 in Franklin. “There is no better joy than a generational business — and sometimes, there’s nothing worse.”      

For more than a decade, Brown has counseled multi-generational, family-operated businesses in various stages of crises, and, from those experiences, she recognized a common mindset: The majority of her clients were operating on what she termed a “family-first business.”

“They’re doing business on a hope and wish, on assumptions, habits, and traditions,” she explained. “They tend to make decisions based on the sake of the family instead of what’s best for the business.”

Brown suggested a viable option: the business-first family. The difference, she explained, is choosing to honor the family by the way they treat their business — by making operational decisions that lead to increases in both profitability and productivity.

“When generations agree to focus on a business-first operation,” she said, “they are saying, ‘We love and honor this family so much that we will do what it takes to get this business right because if we don’t, we could end up without either the business or the family.’”

During her three presentations — each filled with humor and hard truths — Brown offered conference participants practical advice for creating a business-first family:

First, the farm’s workforce should be hired and promoted based on productivity and performance, not family ties. Only employ those people who bring value to the business, Brown suggested, acknowledging the audience’s surprised and somewhat resistant response.

“You’ve got to understand that when you’re operating a business, it’s different — it’s conditional, and it’s not a birthright,” she said. “Don’t bring anyone into the business — whether it’s your brother, your uncle, your son, or daughter — if that person doesn’t have the necessary skills or personality that are needed.”

Then, Brown stressed that all family members — even those who have been groomed to take over — “must fulfill two crucial prerequisites before joining the business: attend at least two years of college or trade school and experience two to three years of off-the-farm employment.” Brown recalled pushback

from some of her clients who had prided themselves on raising hardworking children with farm chores and shared with the audience why she urged them to reconsider their stance.

“You learn so many lessons when you have a nonfamily boss — accountability, expectations and evaluations, discipline, conflict management, and teamwork,” she said. “Parents are often not the best teachers of these vital workplace lessons, so please don’t shortchange your children from this important opportunity.”

The business-first philosophy can transform the work environment by creating an atmosphere where daily interactions are based on professional standards instead of family dynamics, Brown stressed.

“Creating a business-first environment requires changing the communication habits of all parties, especially among the senior and younger generations,” she said. “At work, you’re no longer father and child — you are employer and employee — and, if you want to put business first, you need to act like it.”

The consultant admitted that changing habits, especially ones as deeply rooted as communication, often requires guidance and practice. To aid her clients, Brown created a “toolbox” of communication and organizational documents and lists that she said can be utilized in promoting a professional workplace.

Brown’s foundation of the business-first environment is a document, created by the employees, that lists policies and procedures — preferably in a chart or checklist — for each aspect of the farming operation. It should be posted in a prominent place for easy review, she said.

In warning the audience that the task of developing such a detailed list can be daunting, she cited the example of twice-daily milkings at a dairy farm:

“To write down every step, every policy, every procedure of this one aspect of the dairy operation could require a tremendous amount of time and effort. But to have this list in writing — clear expectations for every part of the operation — is critical to building a business focused on productivity and profits.”

Brown suggested that every family business also have available for employee perusal a business plan; information about risk protection; standard operating procedures; minutes from every meeting; a code of conduct signed by each employee; and a document specifying who hires, fires, and conducts evaluations.

A written communications plan, Brown stressed, is essential for creating a business-first atmosphere in the workplace. The plan, she added, should define clear expectations about interactions among all employees and with customers.

Brown added that as she works with clients to develop a plan specific to their various operations, she recommends two statements to always include. First, co-workers — especially when they’re related — must coach, listen, and even compliment each other.

“Some of my clients treat strangers better than they do family members,” she shared before asking the audience, “How long has it been since you’ve said ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I couldn’t do this without you’ to those who work with you?”

Brown’s second suggestion for the plan dealt with workplace disagreements: Family members must address grievances in private, away from customers and vendors.

“This is a shame, but also true — your hometown loves it when you have a problem,” she said. “Nothing can kill an agritourism business or a farmers’ market quicker than rumors about internal disagreements. Family members, no matter how much they fight in private, must always present a united front as a team in public.”

To conclude her presentation, Brown discussed the final phase of creating a business-first family: preparing for the transition from one generation to the next.

Speaking directly to the “senior” generation members of the audience, Brown said, “At this point in your life, if you don’t have the house you want, get in it and make it handicapped-accessible; if you haven’t taken that vacation, take it; and if you’ve put off taking care of your long-term health care needs, do it. And most important, embrace your role as mentor. The next generation is counting on you — someone who has ridden all the rollercoasters, been through the rain, tornadoes, hailstorms, and high interest rates. Even though you may be less involved, they still need you.”

For more information about the business-first family philosophy, contact Jolene Brown at or visit

The Pick Tennessee Conference is a collaborative effort of Tennessee producer organizations and agriculture agencies, including the Tennessee Agritourism Association, Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance, Tennessee Association of Farmers Markets, Tennessee Flower Growers Association, Tennessee Fruit and Vegetable Association, Tennessee Organic Growers Association, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture.

This year’s three-day event offered Tennessee’s specialty farmers access to a variety of modern farming resources, including a keynote address and two-hour workshop with Brown, an extensive trade show that included a Tennessee Farmers Cooperative booth, and expert-led breakout sessions covering nearly 50 topics, including pumpkin and blueberry production, social media strategies, effects of multi-species grazing on land fertility, and honeybee and mushroom cultivation. TFC was a Diamond sponsor of the annual event.

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